A view From the Bridge

O brave new world of fantastic beasts

Posted on behalf of Stuart Pimm and his research group

Fantastic BeastsFrom the start, European visitors to the New World have celebrated its fantastic biodiversity. What looks like a scarlet macaw embellishes German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, the first to name these lands “America”. Eighty years later the English artist John White, a governor during England’s first attempt at settling North Carolina, was painting fireflies, “which in the night [emit] a flame of fire” (a sight of pure magic on a warm summer’s evening).

And in the 1920s, magizoologist Newt Scamander — with portable menagerie in tow — visited New York with the entirely laudable aim of returning a thunderbird to its home in Arizona. Thus begins Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the David Yates-directed film based on J.K. Rowling’s book of the same name – one of the set texts her boy wizard, Harry Potter, must study at school.

With my research group, including graduate students Alexandra Sutton, Ryan Huang and Rubén Palacio, I had waited anxiously for this new treatment of Scamander’s classic work on the natural history, biogeography and conservation status of the world’s biodiversity invisible to muggles. (That’s you non-wizards.) We entered the seminar room (transformed to resemble a movie theatre), surrounded by young wizards in Hogwarts’ school uniforms. We had many questions in mind.

Would this hidden biodiversity be as diverse and unexpected as that encountered by the first European settlers in the Americas? How would species be distributed across different biomes? Rowling’s previous accounts of the fauna around Hogwarts have merely hinted at the range of possible species, obviously limited to the school’s location in Scotland. Northern, island ecosystems have few species, albeit a plethora of owls.

Here be dragons

Scamander’s ‘zoo’ fits into a single suitcase, which like Doctor Who’s Tardis is very much larger on the inside. And in we go, where we quickly learn of a wide variety of species mostly unknown to the muggle world. We expected dragons, of course. The theoretical ecologist Robert May and colleagues have discussed them in the pages of this journal and, indeed, predicted their resurgence with global warming (Nature 264, 16-17 (1976); Nature 520, 42-43 (2015).

There are many other species. We see the range of ecosystems occupied, extending beyond the Americas and ranging from frozen Arctic wastes to African savannahs. In the latter, we encounter what could be a horned relative of the gargantuan rhinoceros Paraceratherium, long thought to be extinct. Nor does Scamander neglect those world rulers, the arthropods: there are stag beetles as big as dogs. And a relative of the praying mantis, though it does not pray and, despite exhortations, cannot even be persuaded to smile. Australian fauna are also included, with an engaging duck-billed platypus relative that has a bowerbird’s propensity to collect things — in this case, shiny coins and jewellery.

Dan Fogler as Jacob, Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and a beast called a Bowtruckle in Warner Bros. Pictures' fantasy adventure Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Dan Fogler as Jacob, Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and a beast called a Bowtruckle in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

© 2016 Warner Bros. Fantastic Beasts © JKR

Following the presentation, I asked my students: What were the key management issues in the magical world? And how do they compare and contrast to those that muggles experience in their world?

Alexandra noted Scamander’s contradictions: “He’s often the conservationist and he advocates the education of fellow wizards about the value of these magical beasts in their world. But he’s also the collector, keeping wild animals as pets in an environment that’s not necessarily suited to them”. The tension here recalls the species-bagging of early naturalists such as the eccentric Lionel Walter Rothschild, whose vast collection is now held at London’s Natural History Museum.

Species in Scamander’s zoo escape and cause considerable physical damage to New York. It takes much magic to undo the damage, an option unavailable to muggle professionals facing invasive species. As Ryan put it, the movie is also a reminder that “with keeping animals captive comes the callousness by which people traffic in beasts”.

Much of this callousness is borne of our growing separation from the natural world. Rubén reflected: “Some species are mighty, and if not treated correctly, can be dangerous, but this comes from our ignorance. Scamander…understands and engages the animals.” Ryan agreed: “Even though there have been very few wolf attacks on humans, people still fear wolves. Scamander affirms that we humans are the most dangerous beasts of all. When we are scared, we lash out.”

And my view? It tallies with Scamander’s. He asks why “magical beasts, even those that are savage and untameable”, are protected. The answer? To “ensure that future generations enjoy their strange beauty…as we have been privileged to do”.

Stuart Pimm is professor of conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and directs the non-profit SavingSpecies, www.savingspecies.orgHe tweets at @StuartPimm.


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